|Photo by Victor Frankowski
LA PASSION DE SIMONE, is an Oratorio by Finnish Composer, Kaija Saariaho, to a Libretto, with Lyrics, in French, by Amin Maaloof. It featured an orchestra, choir and electronics. It premiered in 2006. A Chamber version was presented in 2013, with no electronics and the choir substituted with four vocalists. This is the version that the Sydney Chamber Opera presented under the Musical Direction of Jack Symonds at Carriageworks.
It's form uses the Passion Play formula, and is shaped around the Christian (Catholic) Church's practice of the Stations of the Cross - a meditation of Jesus Christ's last journey from Pilates condemnation, through the crucifixion to the laying in the tomb. LA PASSION OF SIMONE is a journey in 14 'stations' highlighting ideas and events in the life of, relatively, unknown Simone Weil (1909-1943), a French Philosopher, mystic and political activist, from a collection of notes, collated and ordered by a devout French Catholic friend and philosopher, Gustave Thibon, under the title of GRAVITY AND GRACE, published posthumously - the notes were not intended for publication. The 'stations' of this work presents Simone Weil as an individual of a severe asceticism and a passionate pursuer of truth. Her own books were all published after her death in the 1950's - 1960's. She appears to be a left-leaning intellectual who became religious and inclined towards mysticism and wrote throughout her life Marxist, pacifist works with a deep commitment to the working classes and support of the trade union movements of the time.
I felt that there was an attempt by the librettist, Amin Maaloof in his lyrics, to beatify Simone Weil on a journey to sainthood, that seemed to ignore her autobiographical frailities and imaginative susceptibilities; that, for example that she had a germ phobia and regarded herself as 'disgusting' and could not be touched; that despite her extreme short-sightedness and lack of accuracy with a weapon so deleterious that she was a dangerous presence in the vicinity of her fellow 'soldiers' and, yet, could not comprehend why she was forbidden to fight with weapons in the Spanish Civil War of 1936, and, later, in 1943, denied field work as part of the behind-the-lines French Resistance and, instead, asked to do desk work! - a turning point of despair in Mr Maaloof's libretto for Simone, by the way; that despite being a declared agnostic, upon visiting the church of Saint Francis in Assisi, in 1937, had a divine rapturous revelation from that long dead Saint, and became a mystic; that despite being diagnosed with tuberculosis, in England, in 1943, decided to eat, in sympathy, with what she felt to be the equivalent food intake of her French Compatriots, and gradually starved herself to a point where she had a cardiac arrest and died; that the coroner of the time wrote: "the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed." ; and that Charles De Gaulle, the leader of the French Resistance, described her as 'insane'.
The extremity of this text made me disbelieve the seriousness of the work - it felt like radical Catholic propaganda of the most extreme kind. I became more and more disconnected from the work and ultimately was taken to a place of groaning out loud (literally) at its preposterous portentousness and pretence, seeing it as a right wing Catholic conspiracy about this ill, young woman. Without any 'study' of Simone Weil, for a contemporary audience her symptoms, in the libretto, were alarming health issues. Brought up Catholic the message in this libretto: that the more we suffered in this earthly life the better our immortal life in the arms of God in heaven will be, took me to a place of anxious stupification.
Too boot, then, the production by Imara Savage in collaboration with Designer, Elizabeth Gadsby, does not attempt to engage an audience into a theatrical journey that could cause one to deny cynicism about the writing of Mr Maaloof and, instead, perhaps, encourage one to empower the meditations of these 14 'stations' with some impactful experience, other than turgid boredom. This is an Oratorio - not an opera - and there was no dramatic action to perform - but the 'dramatic' choices of Direction by Ms Savage were frustratingly tedious, whatever the 'metaphors' may have been in the required endurance of it all.
On the huge landscape of the floor stage of Bay 17 at Carriageworks, there is a mound of nicely sculptured rice (uncooked) sitting on the fore-stage beneath a gleaming metal funnelled container (from which it once poured from, I assumed the image was about), lit decorously by Alexander Berlage, whilst dramatically upstage to one side, the figure of the principal singer, Jane Sheldon, stood, faced upstage, slightly diagonally, at an extremely large screen. She is, as is the mound of rice, similarly, sympathetically lit - and is so, with progressive lighting state choices. They are the only dramatic gestures throughout this 75 minute piece of art, Directed by Ms Savage.
Ms Sheldon is on stage when we arrive, and one supposes she has stood there for some 20 minutes, before the performance begins - an endurance demand, indeed - and never ever moves from her position, but does, tensely, physically shiver and shake, in sympathy with a video-image of herself that has appeared on the screen she is facing, during the sung performance. On the screen the video figure of our solo artist has made a slow approach towards us for some 10 minutes, or more (or, so it feels) before she stops and then begins to endure the (painful) raining of rice upon her body from above, for the full extent of the experience - it must have been painful.
The performance proper, begins with these derivative echoes of a Bill Viola video masterwork of imagery - its visual metaphor for this musical work grasped, however, within 2 minutes or so by us - and continued relentlessly without the mystique of the Viola genius for the entire production length. The combined banality of the consistent gigantic imagery of the video (by Mike Daly - it is a feat, by the way) and the fact that Ms Sheldon never engages us front-on directly, takes us into the realm of Art Installation porn-torture. For, at least in a Gallery one can elect how much time one can take of a particular installation with agreeable equanimity and choose to stay or go, but which, in the theatre, becomes a turmoil of debate of should I endure this or should just stand up and leave?
"I've got it and I have only limited time to live life. You are stealing my life and filling it with banality! With banality from all artistic directions."
There was in this production no shock-of-the-new just a tedium of choices that once, 30 or 40 years ago, might have been regarded as avant-garde, but, today, are excruciating, unimaginative and dull. Dull, dull. A 'cutting edge' edge gesture that was a blunt weapon of dramatic impasse - a stalemate, indeed.
I, I guess, like Simone Weil, made a choice to suffer - mine, however, unlike Simone Weil's wilful pursuit of suffering, was out of politeness to those seated about me more than anything. Perhaps it was my residual catholic fret - once a Catholic, always a Catholic - that made me to endure all so as to be able to offer it to a god as part of a 'good deeds' credit if there really is a god and I am called to account, like the Medieval Morality figure EVERYMAN, for self sacrifice and a position in heaven for my immortal lifetime as a reward. It's what I call 'lay buying' just in case there is a heaven.
Look, I am not a musician and I could (can) only experience the musical aspect of this work as an impressionable 'novice', and I found the score of Kaija Saariaho, as only a secondary aspect of this performance - the orchestra situated to the extreme left hand of the stage, in a place of near exile, made it difficult to attend to properly - I was on the righthand side in the audience. The score did not arrest my attention or distract my seething focus from the growing tension I felt about the Libretto and Lyrics and the boring (pretentious?!) visual choices of Ms Savage. I was not thrilled in any way. No Shostakovitch cleverness, as in THE NOSE or LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK or allure, as in Bartok's BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE or challenge of anything written by Francis Poulenc. Nothing as unique as Phillip Glass or John Adams. Theoretically, I'm told the original score is a progression from 'serialism' to 'spectralism'. It achieves some dimension with the combination of live orchestra and the use of electronics - although, in this chamber version, there did not appear to be any 'electronics', except for the amplification of the singers, especially Ms Sheldon, in her upstage facing position - for Directorially, there would be no other way to hear what she was doing. Her voice seemed to me, adequate, if not in the same frame or fame of quality, as the voice of Dawn Upshaw, for whom this piece was written (there is a recording). Now that could have been a thrill.
LA PASSION DE SIMONE was an endurance test, for me, of an overwhelming experience of turgidness and gathering fury at those Catholics, whom I supposed were behind the plodding plotting of this work! A Festival work, I suppose, ought to be contentious and this was, for me, one of those works of time wasting in the theatre that won't easily be forgotten, and memorialised with a sense of dread.
In an entry exam to a school, which Simone Weil took twice to qualify, she achieved first place - Simone De Beauvoir came in second. Now, for my money, trying to sainthood the Passions of Ms De Beauvoir, a different Simone, would have been a more interesting challenge, experience, I reckon. Elena Kats Chernin, where are you? See if Mr Wesley Enoch is game. to commission you and a decent librettist.